Friday, November 20 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, November 20 2015, 10:03 - Journalism
This piece is in the new edition of the Church Times.
THE unconscious is 100 years old this month — counting the publication of Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “The Unconscious” as its birthday. Of course, the unconscious is as old as the psyche, and Freud, too, had been working on it for some years before 1915. His investigations into dreams and hypnosis, hysteria and neurosis demanded it, and he felt that a systematic model was needed.
It is striking how much of Freud’s 1915 description has a religious feel to it. For example, he argues that the processes that take place in the human unconscious have a timeless quality. “They are not ordered temporarily, are not altered by the passage of time.”
They are eternal, in the strict sense — outside time. Freud had stumbled across an experience of life that matched the psalmist’s description of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm 90.4).
Human beings do not live for millennia, but they do live for decades, and psychoanalysis was showing that, in the human mind, the experiences of decades ago have as much vitality as those of yesterday. We have an eternal dimension, too.
It is a finding subsequently substantiated in John Bowlby’s attachment theory: how we experience love and holding in our earliest years, which we cannot consciously remember, influences how we experience love and being held as adults.
This is one reason why, in spite of Freud’s antipathy to religion, psychoanalysis has always had a spiritual feel. Psychodynamic therapy puts the individual in touch with a side of himself or herself which is utterly mysterious to a materialist frame of reference. Yet there is no doubt that it is real.
ANOTHER remarkable observation that Freud makes is that one unconscious can communicate with another, without either individual necessarily realising it. Freud did not know what to make of this aspect in 1915. It subsequently became one of the keystones of psychotherapy, in “transference”: the unspoken felt exchanges that take place between client and therapist, which the therapist has learnt to notice and interpret.
For the spiritually minded, Freud’s observation offers one way of understanding how the immaterial and material worlds interact. It is as if we live in fields of psychic energy which affect us as much as the fields of electromagnetic energy which surround us, also known as darkness and light. We exist in webs of feeling and meaning, for good or ill. We become who we are in response to those who are physically and psychically close. Roughly speaking, communications from benign sources develop the soul; malignancy makes the soul contract.
IT IS clear from research in transgenerational trauma that our ancestors have an impact on us, too. The dead do not simply die. The unconscious can be a way of conceptualising how God and even the angels might shape us as well.
As the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, preached at Michaelmas this year: “Thoughts and notions may come from outside us: our lowest, our destructive ideas, from the source of evil; our highest, our saving notions, from the message of the angels, from our loving Father God.”
That is not language that Freud would use; but he did go on to posit death and life drives, welling up from the unconscious.
Another remark in his 1915 essay carries echoes of how mystics have conceptualised the divine. Opposites and paradoxes are present without contradiction in the unconscious, Freud observed. It is why in dreams we can fly, and why there is a part of us more amenable to poetry than reason.
Theology, too, is full of opposites and paradoxes. God is three in one. The divine can be conceived of simultaneously as creator, shepherd, fire, wisdom. “It might be fruitful to offer the model of the unconscious as one which does better justice to the notion of God within his creation, to the intimate closeness of the infinite which faith also values,” proposes Rodney Bomford, the author of The Symmetry of God (Free Association Books, 1999).
Yes, there are significant differences between God and the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious often feels a dark, oppressive place — although his erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, realised that the unconscious has an expansive and liberating energy, too. God is not the unconscious. Yet studying the unconscious helps the imagination to open to the divine mystery.
FINALLY, the unconscious can assist in understanding pastoral aspects of spirituality. In a footnote to his essay, Freud writes: “The unconscious act exerts on somatic processes an influence of intense plastic power which the conscious act can never do.” To use other terms, the unconscious may lie behind psychosomatic illnesses.
Whatever the causes, which are hotly contested, somatising disorders are widespread: one recent study estimated that the NHS spends £3 billion each year on unexplained symptoms. The unconscious will not account for it all, but there is an urgent need to acknowledge its reach.
Churches and other spiritual buildings are important here. They are known as “brick mothers” in psychotherapeutic circles — structures that transmit feelings of safety and healing. They can be thought of as places that precipitate, and even store, the curative powers of the unconscious, much as buried trauma can conversely cause such psychic and somatic distress.
It helps to explain how churches can assist in supporting improvements in mental health, such as the one promoted by the Recovery Friendly Church course, an initiative developed in a collaboration between St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham, and the Recovery College of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.
The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion. But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.
Tuesday, November 17 2015
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, November 17 2015, 22:14 - In the news
I've been wondering whether psychodynamic insights have anything to offer in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris. And I've found the writings of John Lord Alderdice, a former speaker in the Northern Irish assembly, who is also a psychoanalyst. I think he has crucial and fascinating things to say about understanding terrorism that draw on his two areas of hard-won expertise (see, Alderdice, J.L. (2005). Understanding Terrorism: The Inner World and the Wider World. Brit. J. Psychother, 21:577-587).
Key insights from psychoanalysis need to be brought to bear on our responses to terrorism, he argues. First and foremost: it is not behaviour or thoughts that give potency to the experiences of life, but emotions and meanings. Further, these emotions and meanings are typically derived from the past, not least when that past is marked by hurt and abuse.
Relatedly, the emotional impact of the past is felt as powerfully today in the present, especially when it has not been acknowledged or understood. Further, there are few past experiences that have more purchase on the present than those of humiliation. The desire for vengeance and the righting of wrongs can shape an entire life. They also have a particular power to generate violence because of the need to see an aggressor experience the humiliation that the aggressor is perceived to have inflicted.
A further insight is the victim/perpetrator dynamic. Victimhood often - not always - develops a sadomasochistic quality. The victim grows up in an environment in which the currency of communication is the exchange of pain. It's possible that no other currency of communication can be imagined. Hence, the dynamic can be perpetuated down the generations.
How might these be applied to terrorism? Here are seven points.
First, responses that appeal to rationality, such as "why can't these people see reason?", simply and fatally misunderstand what's going on. As Alderdice puts it: "The outsider from a stable society regards the damage of communal violence as self-evidently not in the interests of either individuals or the society, and often they feel sure that people can be made to ‘see sense’. The insider understands that this view fails to appreciate the weakness of such rational argument in the face of profound violence. "The terrorist has a profound need to make the perceived aggressor feel the humiliation that they felt.
A different rationally-based response that is equally useless is the socio-economic one, in particular, the idea that terrorism has to do with poverty. As a matter of fact, terrorism tends to arise in states that are on their way out of poverty. Bin Laden was a wealthy man. It is at the point of improvement, Alderdice notes, that things become vulnerable to violent breakdown.
So, mechanisms other than socio-economic rationality are at play. What they might be can be illuminated by noticing that the tragic victims of terrorism are not the real targets. Rather, the victims are a way of getting at an authority, usually a government. You see this most clearly in suicide bombing where the victim is, in part, the terrorist's own body. But suicide bombing gets at the authority via the fear it generates. In other words, terrorism needs to be understood as motivated by meaning rather than by personal betterment.
Second, there is the need to understand the immense impact of the past, with all it's emotion and meaning. Such emotions and meanings cannot simply be set aside. Alderdice writes: "The set of thoughts and feelings that has impressed me as most significant in generating violence has to do with experiences of disrespect and humiliation." The desire to be treated with respect is "insatiable".
Moreover, those experiences of disrespect and humiliation may be in the apparently distant past. Psychoanalysis shows that, contrary to the popular view, time is often no healer. The point here is that terrorism can feed on identifications with past or historic victims, and/or inner conflicts that the individual carries from the past. These feed a justification of righteous violence. "The sense that the very existence of a community and all that it holds dear has been threatened provokes deep fears and creates a capacity for responses at least as violent as those which it has experienced." Or as Alderdice puts it in relation to Northern Irish terrorism in particular: "Joining a terrorist organization was consciously seen both as a way of protecting their community and satisfying the wish for revenge for the death or injury of their loved ones"
Third, terrorists may be following rules that pertain more to the unconscious than conscious world - the world of dreams, you might say. It's driven by basic feelings of hatred and rage, or pleasure and elation; by uncomplicated associations that lack nuance and deploy sweeping symbolisms; by wish fulfillments; by a false sense of freedom from the strictures of waking reality, space and time. Alderdice suggests that describing terrorists as fundamentalists can be misguiding here. He prefers the word "primitive" meant in the psychoanalytic sense, like that of a child who refuses to be comforted and screams out of sheer rage.
More complicated still, the child may grow to enjoy its rage because it delivers a secondary gain: being able to control the parent. So too, terrorism delivers secondary gains in terms of feelings of omnipotence: being able to command the world stage. Further again, like parents who must contain the screams of their child and resist being drawn into its primitive world, governments and societies faced with terrorism must resist cultivating primitive feelings and actions in response.
Fourth, Alderdice argues that whilst there may be the need at times to contain the terrorism with violence, violence that is presented as punishment or vengeance will not work. To put it another way, shoot-to-kill will not in itself deter. This is because of the need in terrorism to avenge perceived humiliations. So such actions by a strong government feeds the rage of the self-perceived weak, and further, makes the actions of the weak seem all the more honourable in the minds of those who share the humiliation.
Fifth, there are dire periods of communal violence that can be likened to the most difficult stages of psychotic illness, when the only response is one of containment and trying to minimize damage. "Communities (shaped by terrorism) are in thrall to enormously powerful feelings that can overwhelm their capacity to think clearly and act constructively."
Six, a stage will arrive when it's possible to think more clearly and act constructively, and then everything must be on the table; be capable of being talked about. There must be no no-go areas. This radical honesty and openness lay behind the successes of the truth and reconciliation activities in South Africa. Alderdice argues that it is lacking in the context of the Middle East.
Seven - and in a way to return to the first - appealing to long term solutions is usually of limited help, because emotion is the real issue. "People who propose peace plans in such circumstances seem to be living with the unstated assumption that if the ‘right plan’ could be invented everyone would suddenly grasp it with relief and implement it. Of course this is an illusion. It is not the content of a solution that is critical but the process of achieving it."
Like psychotherapy, the diagnosis of the problem is of limited use: it's the working through which is transformational. To put it another way, we must learn to tolerate the long game and be prepared to invest accordingly.
Tuesday, November 3 2015
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, November 3 2015, 12:02
This month marks the centenary of Sigmund Freud's seminal 1915 paper on the unconscious. In this episode of Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake and myself discuss Freud's understanding of this dynamic, hidden part of the human psyche. We look at the different ideas of Carl Jung, and also ask how the unconscious links to perceptions of the soul and morphic fields.
The discussion is available as a podcast or on iTunes.
Image: Iceberg image - Freud's unconscious often being likened to the submerged mass of ice.
Monday, November 2 2015
By Mark Vernon on Monday, November 2 2015, 10:32 - Events
Constellations is a type of therapy that provides a way of looking at the issues we experience in life as a puzzle, or block, or struggle, or anxiety. They might be personal or work-related, to do with relationships or past events.
With my colleague, Abigail Peters, I'm running a constellations workshop on Sunday 13th December, from 11am-5pm, as a chance to take a fresh look at these troubles - one that is complementary to other kinds of therapy or quest.
Participants in constellations workshops frequently find what emerges to be unexpected, illuminating and liberating. To attend a workshop, you do not need to have a particular issue in mind. In fact, during a workshop only 5 or so participants will have a chance directly to look at their question. But other members of the group can be involved during the course of the day and, in fact, often find that they indirectly gain great benefit from being so. It explores how each of us belongs to networks of other people, times and places, with whom our lives are intimately bound.
To put it a little more technically, constellations is a systemic therapy: it looks at our experience of life as the product of wider family and cultural systems. Things can become difficult or go wrong when our place in these systems becomes problematic for one reason or another - perhaps because of family secrets, traumatic events, injustices, or relationship breakdowns. It's an aspect of our existence that is crucial and yet infrequently considered in our otherwise rather individual-focused times.
I can honestly say that it will be fascinating and moving. These events always are. If you have an interest in the inner life and unconscious processes, you will be engaged. You can participate as an observer, as a representation, or as an issue-holder - the level at which you bring something personally that you would like to explore.
For more information, do email me directly or have a look online here, where you can also book.
Sunday, October 25 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, October 25 2015, 08:17
A Sunday sermon from The Idler Academy, on the redeeming power of negativity.
We live in a dictatorship of positivity. "Yes we can," is the dogma of the age not just the exhausting creed of politicians. You and I must be happy and succeed in all our projects. Business success means maximal production. Kids are washed in affirmation and make entrepreneurs of themselves. We enjoy only amazing holidays, watch simply brilliant films, and generally talk in an excited lexicon flooded by superlatives. And it's making us ill.
This is the conclusion of the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han. His essay, The Burnout Society, has recently been published, giving us his work in English for the first time. He describes how a lack of negativity in life leads to hyperactivity followed by burnout. Because no-one can say no - to the boss, to the mobile, to the inner child, to the electorate - we become trapped in cycles of over-productivity, over-communication, and over-achieving. And, of course, no-one can live at this pitch. The upshot is an epidemic of depression and anxiety. "The complaint of the depressive individual, Nothing is possible, is only possible in a society that believes, Nothing is impossible," Han writes.
Worse, our very psyches are overwritten with this code. It's not actually our bosses or politicians who are exploiting us. We are self-exploiting, running the incessant command to achieve. Distractions and deadlines, amusements and multitasking have become a way of life. Earlier this year, Microsoft discovered that the average attention span has dropped to less than that of a goldfish. Microsoft needs to know because if it doesn't deliver the speeding interface consumers crave, its opponents will.
The paradox of positivity is that it wrecks. "It is an illusion to believe that the more active one becomes, the freer one is." Hyper-attention empties. When everything must be exceptional, the good feels naked. We're left nervous, like a creature hunted on the savannah with nowhere to rest - only the threat is not out there, it's internalized. Hence, panic spontaneously erupts when your phone crashes. Anger kicks out when the driver in front of you is fractionally slow at the lights. The midlife crisis is no longer midlife but is first experienced in your teens, then in your twenties, thirties, forties. "Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity," Han continues. And creation fatigue. Think of the blockbuster films released this Christmas. Star Wars was new 40 years ago; James Bond 60 years ago.
So what does Han counsel? In a word, contemplation or "profound idleness". It's the rediscovery of negativity, the active capacity to turn from this and that, and focus only on the other. For many of us hyper-achievers, this possibility will only emerge after a breakdown. The crash is a gift: no longer able to produce, exhausted by our own ability, we will be forced to say no and, if we are lucky, will realise that it's liberating.
We may go further and learn to see, be mindful. Deep attention may follow after that. And the freshness of life might return. As Nietzsche observed, thinking and culture require "getting your eyes used to calm, to patience, to letting things come to you." It requires unlearning the immediate reactivity to the next stimulus and instead taking control of the "inhibiting, excluding instincts." Gradually, ruminative crowding lessens. Irritable abreactions can be contained. You pause.
Sabbath originally meant "stopping". It's a day not to. It's an interval in which uselessness is celebrated. So this week, dare to exclude yourself, to be negative, to be glad of the fatigue that makes you want to curl up. This supposed social disaster is actually a moment of hope. Look, and you'll see it contains the inspiration to not-to-do. Nothing could be your salvation.
Saturday, October 24 2015
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, October 24 2015, 09:18
To celebrate the launch of choralevensong.org, which tells you where to find the nearest celebration of this glorious, and free, experience of Anglican transcendence, Rupert Sheldrake and myself have had a conversation about liminal rites and the power of chant as part of our science set free podcast.
They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.
Wednesday, October 14 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, October 14 2015, 15:12 - General
Mindfulness is rarely out of the news right now, and one theme that is doing the rounds is whether it can be dangerous. Projects such as The Dark Night are investigating the adverse effects of practice. Alternatively, the research upon which the efficacy of mindfulness rests is being questioned: does the research conceal as much as what it illuminates about the impact of meditation?
As a committed practitioner myself, I suspect there's something important to understand in this examination. And I think insights from psychotherapy greatly assist. To summarize what I think's going on: there's a growing realization that mindfulness is a powerful tool but what is harder is to accept that this very power can mean things go wrong. Psychotherapy helps because it offers a complementary set of tools for finding a way through what meditation brings up.
Consider one common experience when individuals start meditating, one with which they can then struggle for a long time. It's the basic business of sustaining a practice. Often, I suspect, there's an initial buzz when beginning that, at first, keeps an individual returning to the cushion. There's a "quick win" of peacefulness that comes with even a few minutes of silence in the midst of a life that is, otherwise, mostly distracted. That sense of calmness discovered is likely to last throughout an introductory course: research shows that attrition rates at this stage are low. But after the 8 weeks, the going gets tough. So what's going on?
Psychodynamic thinking suggests that the practice might be putting an individual in touch with what's known as their "secure base". And it may be beginning to highlight the possibility that this is not quite so resilient as an individual had taken it to be. Developmental psychology assists here.
Research such as that based upon John Bowlby's attachment theory shows that we form a sense of security within ourselves that arises from the experience we had in our earliest months and years. Feeling grounded is feeling that our bodily sense of things can basically be trusted. Feeling restless, detached, agitated when trying to sit still is perhaps an echo of our early experience. It has left us with a barely conscious feeling that, in our vulnerability then, we did not feel so well held. It's the kind of fundamental, somatic insight into our experience of life that mindfulness unveils. It's a dimension that, I suspect, most people will encounter when they try to practice.
A mindfulness teacher will, of course, encourage you to sit with it, perhaps stressing that shorter periods of practice time are better than attempting unsustainable marathons. But psychotherapy can offer complementary help. In a way, to be in therapy is to meet with someone who can hold things for you whilst you, first, become more aware of the deep insecurities and, second, learn to relate to them differently. Sitting, in time, becomes more possible too. It's one area in which mindfulness and psychotherapy can work together.
A second area concerns another key issue in mindfulness practice, that of being kind to yourself. The cultivation of compassion is so crucial because, again, mindfulness is so powerful. It can highlight not only your restlessness but also your inner judge - the voice that relentlessly criticizes and picks holes in others. A mindfulness teacher will stress that compassion directed at yourself and others is crucial if this dynamic is to be negotiated. They are right.
But psychotherapy offers possibly invaluable assistance here too. In psychodynamic terms what is being encountered is the human tendency to project difficult feelings into oneself and onto others. It's a pervasive tendency that goes on all day everyday, such as when we spontaneously and instantly make judgments about others. The stillness of mindfulness brings up the fact that these projections are so widespread in one's life. That can be deeply disturbing to observe.
Psychodynamic therapy helps because it is an approach that works directly with projections, in the form of transference. Therapists are trained at not getting sucked into them, but rather staying with, thinking about, and working through them. It's compassion by another name. Therapy can, therefore, greatly facilitate nurturing your own compassion too.
A third critical issue in mindfulness practice has to do with integration. One of the risks with discovering the potential peace offered by meditation is that you attempt to cultivate that calmness as an escape from everyday life. This is very different from cultivating it as a place to which you can bring the hassles of everyday life. Once more, it's a tricky business to get right, particularly because many of the conceptual ideas in the mindfulness lexicon - such as emptiness, stillness, allowing - can seem straightforward enough when, in actuality, they are tremendously subtle.
Psychotherapy refers to this third tendency as splitting, the inadvertent bid to keep a good experience of peace away from nastier feelings of discontent. It's something everyone does to some degree: sometimes it's necessary. The danger in mindfulness is that a practice beds down as "the moment in the day when I can relax", or as a kind of peace-battery that's charged up in the morning in the hope that its effect will last the day.
Think of it like this. There's a difference between safety and safeness. Safety is when you feel protected from the world, under the duvet, as it were. Safeness is when you feel resourced to be able to face the world - to be open to it without being overwhelmed by it. Psychotherapy can help to discern the difference, with the result that mindfulness becomes a support that enables you to enter the darkness, rather than using it to retreat into an ultimately false source of imagined perpetual light.
So mindfulness is powerful. That's why it's been a core practice in spiritual and therapeutic paths for millennia. But I suspect that many, perhaps most, modern day practitioners need modern day help too. My suggestion is that psychodynamic psychotherapy can assist.
Image: Phra Ajan Jerapunyo
Sunday, September 27 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, September 27 2015, 10:34 - Journalism
This essay, adapted from my book Love: All That Matters, is in the current issue of TPM.
Developmental psychology is a field of study hardly known until the twentieth century. Before figures like Sigmund Freud, philosophers seemed not much to have noticed that the inner life of the child has a determining impact upon the love life of the adult. Exceptions include thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But it wasn't until Freud developed notions such as infantile sexuality, and followers of his including Jean Piaget and Melanie Klein developed practices of infant observation, that it became clear just how profoundly the first few years shape our subsequent experiences of and attempts to love. My sense is that the philosophy of love has yet fully to embrace these new discoveries perhaps because, during the same period, philosophy came to inhabit a silo of knowledge isolated from psychology, which itself became pre-occupied with behavioural investigations, as opposed to the psychodynamic. That time appears now to be passing.
The developmental insights can usefully be summarised by arguing that our capacity for love emerges in, broadly, three stages. At each stage a different relational dynamic becomes possible, one deeper and more expansive than what was previously known. However, the transition between each mode is painful because it requires letting go of the security that comes with the former familiar love. A life will tend to go well - an individual will be more likely to flourish - if they can wisely utilize and spontaneously enjoy each kind of love. Conversely, things will tend to become stuck and troubled, perhaps seriously damaged, when a to-and-fro movement between the loves is blocked.
The three loves begin with self-love or, to give it its seemingly darker, more technical name, narcissism. In life, this is our first love, as the evidence is that it is the kind of love with which we are born. On the whole, it serves us well because it ensures we survive. It selfishly demands the nourishment and security, both physical and psychological, that the newborn child needs. However, there is a downside. Narcissism has little or no felt appreciation that other human beings exist as separate entities in the world. So, unless it is transcended, this love leaves us lonely and isolated, worried by the existence of others and untrusting. We must love ourselves but in such a way that we can get over ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin. Then narcissism serves us well because it means we can embrace a world apart from ourselves.
That leads to the second kind of love, the love that discovers there is another person in the world and this person is both loveable and returns love. Typically, it is thought that it begins to dawn on the very young child that it has a mother, or a primary carer, who is devoted to it. The infant is encouraged in play to explore the little intimacies that this other person longs to share and it develops the capacity for a healthy attachment to this other. The bodily warmth of their twosome nurtures in it the wonderful realization that it is not alone. The child grows in love, develops a stronger sense of itself through this relationship and, all being well, lays down capacities that will serve it well when, as a young adult, it falls in love and discovers once more that there is another person who might love them and whom they might love.
The second love supports a happy state of affairs, one that can be regarded as the pinnacle of love, particularly in its grown-up form: romantic love. But, in fact, it is a crucial part of the developmental story that this is not the end of love. Left in that phase, romantic love is as limited and limiting as self-love. The two lovers are stranded, struggling to find fulfilment in each other, when, in truth, fulfilment for human beings requires far more than love focused on just one other person.
So the individual must make another transition, which again is difficult. However, if once more it navigates the shift well enough, a third even more tremendous experience of love comes into conscious view. It is the love that can welcome a third dimension into its embrace. It is the most expansive and open, and with it the individual can throw him- or herself wholeheartedly into life.
The first experience of this third love is likely to occur when the now not quite so young child realizes mother has other interests and loves, not least the individual she relates to as her beloved. That comes as a shock to the child, although it may then sense that Dad loves him or her as well as Mum, and that their threesome enables all kinds of experiences that were inconceivable before. One of the most astonishing is when the child notices it can observe two others loving, as he or she watches on, which leads to the sense that he or she too is being watched. Internalized, this is the basis for self-awareness and self-consciousness, and the sense that the centre of life is not focused on me, or between me and another, but is dispersed throughout fields or networks of shared connection.
Life is much more promising, and complex, and at times frightening, than the infant could have possibly imagined. With this third love, the child – and then adult – develops the confidence and trust required to enter into mature love and so to become a friend; to pursue wider interests and passions; all in all, to reach out into life in all its fulness.
In fact, and although he showed little interest in the inner lives of infants, Plato described a developmental process that can be related to the modern psychology: in works like the Symposium and the Phaedrus, he provides a vivid description of the way that love works. It has the remarkable quality of revealing an experience of life that far transcends the first taste of love that awoke us to its allure. By committing to live a life in pursuit of love, Plato says, life will become far more for us than we might imagine. Love carries within itself a tremendous transformative potential. The individual who loves well enough – be it as a beloved, a friend, a parent – is changed as they love. Love itself seems to overcome inherent limitations, often to a surprising degree. When that change goes well, people find their capacity for loving expanding, too. They sense more and more of life.
Plato argued that love moves us because of the magnetic force known as beauty: the beauty we discern in our beloved is love’s ‘promise of happiness’ should we manage to make a life together. It works in two ways.
First, our appraisal of the beauty draws us to them or it, although what Plato also noticed is that at this stage we do not know precisely what we will find should we get there. This is partly because beauty awakens us from afar: its task is to draw us towards who or what is not yet known. But there is a more radical aspect to beauty’s promise, too, because love itself creates a new future out of the relationship as it unfolds. It is not just that the beloved is at first a stranger to us. Something new happens when lovers get together. To put it another way, we bet on love when we respond to beauty, a bet that is ‘a stab at the future’ as the philosopher Alexander Nehamas puts it. This insight, Nehamas argues, is Plato’s most startling: love is creative, working reflexively in the fit and friction of the relationship that is uniquely the lovers’ own. ‘What is mine is thine, and thine is mine’, as the old phrase has it, not only because they will now share what separately they had before but because something comes into being that is forged within and belongs to their relationship.
Plato stressed that love is a tricky path to follow, one of great toil, likely setbacks, and possible failure. Human beings find themselves in something of a bind when it comes to love because the love that spontaneously arises within the individual is inevitably limited and flawed for the reason that human beings are limited and flawed creatures. We are always, in a way, failures in love.
It is a truth that chimes with developmental psychology. There are the anxious experiences that must be borne for the infant to transcend their narcissism and grant that mother has interests other than itself. Though it is a struggle not without hope, Plato would add. To switch back to his description: if courageous and capable, the individual is likely to undergo a transformation in which the first yearnings for another human body subtly shift and begin to speak to them of a deeper desire.
A common adult manifestation of this movement is the perhaps surprising wish to have children with a person to whom you are attracted. Children, Plato explains, are a product of love’s spiritual desire for more from life: sexual relationships in human beings stirs up a longing that teenage lovers would never have dreamed of – a desire to overcome their egoism, felt as a longing to have and hold a new life sprung from their love.
It's one form of adult love celebrated by Plato. Children can prove to be a great satisfaction. But they have a tendency to have a life of their own and routinely disrupt the hopes and longings of parents. So, individuals strive for other ways of embracing more from life, Plato continues, of transcending the boundaries of their own limited existence. There are the sciences and arts, friends and work, wealth and fame. Though, again, you do not have to look too hard to feel that they are likely to offer only fragile satisfaction as well.
There is an element in some of these activities that can mitigate the risk to a degree – that is, when they contribute to the common good. Plato suspected that this is why people seek to make contributions to the societies in which they live. That can take many forms. Individuals become artists not only for reasons of self-expression but to make public works. Engaging in research and science not only scratches a personal itch that wants to know but contributes to the accumulation of knowledge that links the individual to wider concerns. Others may devote their loves to upholding justice, caring for others, or laying down their life for their country.
Another aspect of love that builds in a degree of resilience is creativity. Plato points out that the love of friends, wealth or discovery may be possessive – as in, this is ‘my friend’, ‘my money’, ‘my insight’. But creativity may also take on a different tone, not possessive but generative. Possessive energies are transformed from being self-serving to being collaborative.
You can tell because when individuals collaborate on some project that they love, or when their collaboration is a commitment to each other born of love, the results are exponential. What they give birth to is more than either alone could have conceived. The beautiful ideas of one combine with those of another and a third thing is born. The lovers will themselves be changed by this process, as parents are when they have children. They will love something new that they could not have anticipated before their work of love began and it will take them out of themselves.
We are now a long way from the youthful desire for another body, or even the search for friends. Such is the transformative potential of love. But is there a fourth step to add to developmental psychology's three? Does love afford another dimension of existence that, when we follow it's path is opened up to us?
Certainly, many human beings have believed so, calling that dimension ‘God’, or ‘the transcendent’, or ‘infinite compassion’. The writer of the late fourteenth century spiritual guide The Cloud of Unknowing talked of a ‘dart of longing love’ that can penetrate these clouds of our unknowing. The Buddhist tradition has developed sophisticated practices that build lives of compassion which, in turn, promises a kind of awakening called enlightenment.
Plato believed so too. He made an observation something like this. What links the later creative activities of mature love with the first romantic urge is that they promise a kind of reversal. It is not we who must cling to love out of an act of desperation, but, rather, to mature in love is to discover that love is already flowing through us, has in a sense already made us. To borrow from developmental psychology: the young infant did not know its parent was there, though she or he was. Later, it did not know that the parent was supported by the love of others, though that is revealed when the child awakens to the reality of a third. The creative life is like that, too. It is born of the passion of others, always already ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.
I like the analogy of the philologist, Owen Barfield: to be human is to be like an Aeolian harp. These musical instruments consist of a wooden box and sounding board, over which strings are stretched across a bridge. They look a little like a violin without the neck. Also, they are not played by a bow, as the violin is, but rather by the wind. Aeolian harps are placed in openings across which the wind may blow, perhaps at a window: Aeolus is the god of the wind. As the air current sweeps across the strings, so the music from the harp is heard shifting and evolving, rising and falling. The analogy is that we are the harp, and the wind is the love required to make the music. We have a creative part to play in the harmonies that emerge, though without the movement of the pre-existing love there could only be silence.
Still, the fragility persists. Love is always a scary force. In taking us out of ourselves, placing our lives in the love of others, it places our wellbeing in their hands, too. When things go well, this fires our creativity, our capacity to give, our passion for life. When we are let down or betrayed, love generates rage, envy, desolation, the desire for destruction. You are far more likely to murdered by someone you love than by a stranger. It is friends who can hurt you the most, not strangers.
For Plato, though, and other philosophers and theologians influenced by him, there is a way out of this terrible ambivalence. Mature love teaches us not to strive for and cling to what we think we desire, or only to turn to the love of others. It alerts us to a love that is closer to us than we are to ourselves, to deploy the formula of Augustine, the Christian theologian and philosopher. This can, at the last, always be relied upon. Augustine called that love God, the place in which the restless heart can find rest. The sufferings of life do not cease: love still calls us to love. Only now there is the sense that the hurt and struggle can be redeemed. Love's greatest revelation is that the process of self-renunciation it leads us upon - and which developmental psychology has described so well in relation to early life - opens up a fourth dimension: a sense of divine love that underpins all the earlier growth and struggle.
The revelation is summed up in the formula from the Christian tradition: God is love. The most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant, unclouded love of God yearns for us. Plato never puts it quite like that, though is clear that he felt love was the energy that can propel us towards intimations of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Parallel intuitions can be found in other wisdom traditions too.
Such insights are the opposite of the implicit assumptions we lived by when we were born into the world and struggled to grab and possess life, in the desperate need to survive. The truth we might eventually come to is that love’s desire is most deeply satisfied by letting go, by allowing, by receiving. It is not about trying to control life. That is a necessary strategy for a time, and at certain times, in order that we might make something of ourselves as human beings. We all do it. And yet, a different kind of presence can come through too. It was the most lovely of all. ‘What do I love when I love my God?’ Augustine asks at the end of his Confessions . Is it the glories of creation, the intensity of existence, the wonder of the heavens, the silence of eternity? ‘I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things,’ he continues, ‘and their beauty was all the answer they gave.’ This is a love that does not seek to possess, or even to create, but to contemplate. It is the only final response to the natural desire for more. It is an extension of the observation that love thrives best when we do not gaze into each other’s eyes but turn together towards life. The promise is a kind of love that engages not just life, but the ground of being itself.
It seems to me that what has been learned of love from developmental psychology - the dynamic and momentum it gives to the unfolding of love in life - can naturally be continued to point in this divine direction. Ultimately, love is not from us. It made and makes us. Human love is the experience that inevitably oscillates between poles of possessing and releasing, struggle and rest, surface and depth, body and soul, pain and pleasure, terrestrial and celestial. And yet, without the higher poles, it may be mistaken for being defined by the possessing, struggle, surface, body and pain.
The divine element is, of course, the tricky element in a secular age. The desire to invest in family and friends, in work and creativity, is straightforward to accept – if often hard to pull off in life. That love might lead us on an erotic quest towards God may feel like a step too far. Perhaps family and friends, work and the like are enough. Maybe there is nothing more in life than life and so it is futile to seek the divine. Spiritual love is deluded love.
However, I suspect that this is a possibility that cannot be decided upon by reason or psychology, by myth or evidence alone. Ultimately, it can only be answered by the ever-expansive journey into life called love. That path is itself epistemologically revealing. It is integral to love's transformative potential. To use Martha Nussbaum's phrase, though she did not mean it in this way, there is such a thing as 'love's knowledge'. If there is a way back to God, only love will finally reveal it to us.
Saturday, September 12 2015
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, September 12 2015, 10:15 - Podcasts
We've published the latest discussion between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.
There is a growing new mood in science. The grip that scientific materialism has had on the scientific imagination is beginning to loosen. This is the philosophy that all things in the natural world can be reduced to the material level. But it seems as if the many everyday experiences that individuals have, in particular being conscious, which can't be accounted for by physicalism are forcing the possibility of considering alternatives. In this dialogue, Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon consider what might be happening, how such a shift would make a difference in areas from health to parapsychology, and what might happen next.
Friday, August 28 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, August 28 2015, 08:58 - Journalism
This article is published in the new issue of Third Way Magazine…
In the 750th anniversary year of Dante's birth, does the medieval world-view of The Divine Comedy still have anything to teach us? Mark Vernon's planetary tour of the Italian poet's universe gives new signposts for modern readers.
Midway upon the journey of his life, Dante Alighieri, the poet of The Divine Comedy, watched his luck collapse. A politician in Florence with the ear of the Pope, his fortunes suddenly reversed and he was cast into exile and penury. His mind fell on his first love, the beautiful Beatrice. The yearning and loss inspired his great poem, a visionary journey powered by love that carries him through the three realms of the dead towards a beatific vision of God.
Many modern readers of his masterpiece feel quite at home in the Inferno and Purgatory. The fates and tortures, sorrows and hopes that fill these realms still feel related to our struggles today. That familiarity departs with the Paradise. The vast differences between the medieval and modern experience of life then become an apparently insuperable barrier.
C.S. Lewis described the gap in his study of the medieval imagination, The Discarded Image. He recognized that it represented a major problem for Christianity because so much Christian imagery and theology is grounded in the abandoned worldview. When Dante looked up to the stars, he perceived himself to be on the lower rungs of a ladder of being that rises to God. When modern eyes gaze into the heavens, it is as if we look out from an island of awareness into vast voids of emptiness. Science tells us it is populated by dead matter not living souls; blind mechanisms not celestial virtues.
Or is that right? Do we actually have more imaginative and metaphysical options than we might first presume? Can we look up with modern eyes and still detect Dante's brilliant vision?
Dante the pilgrim enters paradise and the first sphere of the Moon. According to the poem, he asks why the lunar surface has lighter and darker parts. Beatrice, who accompanies him, tells him that he must let go of the physical explanations he proposes. His task now is different: it is to learn to perceive by a spiritual light. So for we moderns, might entering the lunar domain be thought of metaphorically as coming to an awareness of how richly we project human perceptions onto the stars, so as to begin to let them go?
Take the interest in discovering extraterrestrial life. This enterprise has been energetically engaged for well over half a century without a single positive discovery. The last report I saw said that over 100,000 galaxies have now been scanned for the basic signatures of civilizations like ours without the faintest signal. So why does this long search lose none of its fascination and appeal?
Projection is one answer. I wonder whether the search for ET has much to do with the human need to feel we are not alone. You might say that the quest is indulged with sublunary assumptions, as if the only option for intelligent life is carbon-based consciousness like our own. But that preoccupation excludes spiritual possibilities. What might they be? Dante asks that too, as he journeys into the next sphere, Venus.
Here, he begins to be able to discern, and bear, intensely beautiful images of spiritual reality. For a modern mind, reflecting on the role that beauty plays in scientific discovery might help us to journey this next step with him. Put it like this: mathematicians seek elegant solutions; physicists symmetries; biologists patterns. Scientists do so because such beautiful formulations are scientifically productive. But are they metaphysically revealing too?
In fact, the mathematician and former President of the Royal Society, Michael Atiyah, has noticed that modern scientists are perhaps unwittingly rejecting beauty as a handmaid of discovery by their adoption of algebra as a mathematical tool, in conjunction with computers. The upshot is that geometry, with its intuitive methods based upon principles of beauty - pattern, symmetry, balance - is falling into disuse. In a lecture, "Mathematics in the Twentieth Century", delivered in 2000, he argued that this move is something of a Faustian pact. "The devil says: 'I will give you this powerful machine, and it will answer any question you like. All you need to do is give me your soul.'" But without soul - without beauty - science is limited to what the machine can manipulate. It leaves scientists blind to what calculations cannot conceive.
You could say that Atiyah senses that science needs Venus and the stimulus of beauty, and that her inspiration is at risk of being eclipsed.
Dante's next step in paradise is into the sphere of the Sun. He is now fully awake to the limitations of human understanding; he has embraced the wonder of being confronted by irresolvable mystery. For the modern mind, a similar point of realization can be reached: the knowledge gained through the powerful methods of modern science comes to be recognized as indicative of a richness that lies beyond description, and which is even more extraordinary.
Dante meets Thomas Aquinas in the Sun. There is a well known story about Aquinas, which Dante presumably knew. On the morning of St Nicolas's Day, 1273, Aquinas had a vision. He concluded that all he had written was as much straw - meaning not meaningless but basic compared with the "wisdom so profound none of His creatures can ever hope to see into Its depths," as Dante has Aquinas say in Paradise. The human efforts of the Angelic Doctor could now stop. He would rest in the fecundity of spiritual silence, which paradoxically he could appreciate all the more because of his hard-won knowledge. He had adopted a solar mind.
Another past President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, has written of a parallel experience. He confesses an agnosticism of the type that is profoundly aware of the limitations of the human mind. He argues that scientific endeavours have barely understood the workings of the hydrogen atom, one of the simplest structures in the cosmos. It seems presumptuous to propose that we will one day arrive at a theory of everything, and so know the mind of God, to recall the phrase of Stephen Hawking. You might say that Rees is a scientist who enjoys the radiance of the Sun - the wonderment that dazzles at the fine edges of rational and empirical discovery. We can join him and Aquinas too.
Love presses on, and Dante next moves towards Mars. Here, he meets one of his ancestors and, in that meeting, his relationship to the great flow of life. It's the next gift offered by paradise.
I sense we might be welcomed here by Paul Davies, a cosmologist who countenances a possibility that is generally taboo in modern science, namely that the cosmos might have a telos, a directionality, an end. Davies is the author of several bestselling science books, including The Goldilocks Enigma, in which he examines the seeming rightness of the universe for the emergence of self-conscious life. He speculates that the cosmos may contain a drive for life, for self-consciousness, and even for qualities such as love. Though it's taboo to raise such possibilities, this "life principle" is a plausible hypothesis, he writes. It's a breathtaking thought when set alongside the vastness of the universe's unfolding: at least 13.8 billion years in time and 90 billion light years in space that is permeated by this gentle, unfailing pull.
To put it another way, a cosmic life principle presents us with our own relationship to the great flow of life. Further, it lifts us out of any humdrum experience of life and affords us a glimpse of the mystery of life and death. And more: is not to see one's own life as a reflection of an instinct for awareness that pulses through the cosmos, to die a little to self? Is it not to feel one's existence within a wider whole, flaming forth from an animating principle, the divine Word? It's what Dante realizes too as he is blessed by Mars.
Can we make the next move towards Jupiter, the realm of order, justice and serenity? Each of the souls Dante sees here has a place, rejoices in her place, and works harmoniously alongside all others. Interestingly, it is also the domain in which no one speaks to the pilgrim.
In relation to modern cosmology, a parallel experience might be to receive an intuition of the ineffable lawfulness of the universe. Under the white light of Jupiter, the laws of nature that science can articulate come to be known as echoes of a higher, harmonious order.
Albert Einstein smiles at us in this realm. On Earth, he had professed the type of pantheism advocated by Spinoza. It identifies God with nature but, unlike reductive forms of pantheism, does not forget the dependency of nature upon God: God is not another being but the Being of nature itself.
This theological carefulness sprang from his intellectual humility, his "veneration for a force beyond anything that we can comprehend." My conceit is that his terrestrial humility secures him a place in Jupiter's celestial domain because it ensures that his genius served a greater worship of the cosmic mystery. He spoke of "a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds." He knew nature as a wonderful phenomenon shaped according to lawful patterns and coordinated movements. You could say he loved "Jove's justice", to echo the words that appear to Dante in this sphere.
There is a contemplation that is another step on, in Saturn. Dante now sees a ladder that can lift the soul out of the heavenly spheres altogether, and so closer still to God. Even music and Beatrice's loving smile, Dante realizes, are imprints of a lower beauty from which he must become detached if he is to continue. He must prepare himself to rise on a metaphysics that acknowledges a world of pure spirit that is radically independent of the material world. It's a form of Platonism, and one shared by the Oxford physicist who taught Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose.
For Penrose, Platonism provides the best description of why the human mind can do science at all. There must be a link between a metaphysical reality and physical reality, and it is made through the intelligence we know as mind. Though Penrose publicly remains neutral about the existence of God, I think he can be thought of as a fellow traveller with Peter Damian, the medieval contemplative whom Dante meets in Saturn. Damian's words to the poet capture the tremendous dynamic inherent in Platonic insight: "A ray of God's light focuses on me and penetrates the light enwombing me, whose force once joined to that of my own sight, lifts me above myself until I see the Primal Source..."
The metaphor of a ray of light carries a striking additional resonance too. I once spoke with Penrose about the nature of light. He told me that, according to the theories of relativity, light does not exist in time. That is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light, and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. Time would have to slow to a halt, requiring an infinite amount of energy - a lift to eternity, you might say, given that eternity is the world of timelessness. And then Penrose added a personal thought.
He described arriving at his office in the morning and turning on the lights. The room floods with photons, cascading sparks of timeless brightness. "It's like being bathed in eternity," he murmured, almost to himself. It seemed to me that this everyday act, transformed by a deep cosmological mystery, was simultaneously akin to a mystical experience, momentarily lifting him out of time altogether. Surely it is to glimpse high into the divine heavens.
Moon, Venus, Sun. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. In the poem, Dante continues, journeying on. But perhaps that's enough to suggest there are ways of reclaiming, and inhabiting, Dante's "discarded image".
Sunday, August 16 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, August 16 2015, 08:38 - Journalism
A Sunday Sermon as posted at The Idler Academy.
We love to go on holiday to the sea. The turquoise lure of a sunny ocean has determined eight out of ten holiday destinations this year, I read. So why do millions cram on coasts and islands during these warm weeks? Fun, for sure. But I suspect the sea delivers something the soul loves too.
First, it makes us feel at home, more comfortable with ourselves. Individuals do things beside the seaside that they'd never do elsewhere. They strip off, build sandcastles, idle for hours during the middle of the day. Perhaps it has to do with the remarkable fact that we share the same percentage of salt in our blood as exists in the sea. 'We are tied to the ocean,' was how John F Kennedy put it: 'And when we go back to the sea, we are going back from whence we came.' The sea rocks us in its cradle as we float buoyant on salty waves. And it is also our evolutionary cradle. Perhaps our cells remember that deep history when we catch sight of the surf and surge, and our souls feel they have returned home.
But if the sea brings comfort, it also - secondly - sparks fear. It's 'dragon-green' and 'serpent-haunted', according to poet James Elroy Flecker. We pray for those in peril on the sea. There's the threatening power of the wind and waves, of course. And too, the sea is a powerful metaphor for the unconscious parts of ourselves, that domain of impulses, dreads and dark forms of which we're mostly unaware. The undulating, choppy surface becomes an interface between what is seen and what's unknown inside us. The sea is a reminder of what lies hidden beneath the turbulence of everyday distractions and concerns.
Playing with that fear is a standard device in movies. Think of Jaws, 40 years old this year. Part of the director's genius was to present us with a shark's-eye view by filming much of the action from under the surface. Sitting in a dark cinema watching the white foam and red churn was to come close to the monsters that can spring from the unconscious, the menace of the indefinite.
Better then to contemplate the sea from dry sand and firm land. From this vantage, the sea becomes restorative by nurturing a safer meditation. In stiller parts of the beach, or strolling alongside the water in the evening light, you will catch sight of holiday-makers gazing across the waves. They fall silent. They stand for a moment. It's as if they become aware and accepting of the darker forces in life.
And there's perhaps a third dynamic the sea evokes too. Alongside feeling it's akin, and knowing it's strange, the sea speaks of promise. Think of the metaphors inspired by sparkling waters. It prompts longings for 'near horizons' and 'distant shores'. It leaves us feeling 'wide open' or in touch with a 'vast emptiness'. The cobalt blue, or grey-green, or wild indigo convey a timeless eternity. 'The sea is as close as we come to another world,' remarked poet, Anne Stevenson.
It's to experience the sea's transcendence. It's to be reminded that our own world is often too small for us. If we can risk being all at sea - if we find a taste for its adventure and escape - we might discover the more that it offers. 'Time in the sea eats its tail,' wrote Ted Hughes. When the philosopher Plotinus saw the sea, he advised his followers to 'close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all.' The sea can shape the imagination as surely as it smooths the pebbles on the beach. See what you can see by the sea!
Image: Mainland Greece and Albania seen from Corfu, Bogdan Giuşcă
Wednesday, August 5 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, August 5 2015, 09:48 - Journalism
This review of The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray is published in Third Way Magazine.
The philosopher and historian of ideas, John Gray, is the type of atheist Christians can read with profit. Unlike many contemporary atheists who write about the human condition, Gray is under no delusion that humanity can do well or better without God. His exposé of the human propensity to violence, illusion, narcissism and misplaced optimism is relentless. He conveys a sense of life that is as bleak as Good Friday. His most recent books, including The Soul of the Marionette, can be read as a kind of emptying spiritual meditation. Accounts of individual paranoia, cannibalistic civilisations, and human folly take the sensitive reader to the despair of Jesus crying from the cross of God's desertion. For Gray, this wretched, blind, vulnerable state of being is not the exception but the rule. He offers a reminder of why believers believe: they feel death's presence too.
He is interesting to read as well. His awareness of lesser known novelists and thinkers is impressive. For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume is often cited for his attack on theism. The human mind does not really know the causes of things even when seemingly proven, he argued, be those causes presumed mechanical or providential. There is an unbridgeable gap between what we perceive and what happens. But I, for one, had not heard of Hume's contemporary, the clergyman Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill took such radical scepticism seriously too but, instead of turning it against religion and science, deployed it in favour of religion. The ways of God in nature are not our ways, he felt Christianity affirms. Providence is unsearchable; we can never know. But that humility is precisely the wisdom born of faith.
In fact, Gray often shows more sympathy for theism than atheism. He argues that, at their best, religions such as Christianity recognise that humanity faces problems that, of itself, it cannot surmount. Conversely, modern secularism is built on myths of anthropocentric progress. Science and politics alike sell us faith in reason or technology as ways out of human ills and evil.
Actually, it seems to me that Christians today are at risk of buying into such myths too. Church authorities confuse God's mission in the world with a plan for their church designed to halt numerical decline. Or they feel that Christianity requires them to seek global solutions to intractable issues such as immigration or poverty. The Christian task is at once much simpler and more demanding: it is to show compassion to those who are cursed by political, social and religious systems. That's harder than nurturing fantasies such problems can be solved - the whole of history shows they can't - because it leads in one direction: to the cross.
Gray can critique Christianity too. He is clear about the damage and suffering followers of Jesus have inflicted on others when they mistakenly assume confessing their creed equals knowledge of truth, a truth that must then be forced on others. In particular, the universal claims of Christianity have been a licence for universal savagery, Gray writes, citing Giacomo Leopardi. This intolerance, which amongst Christian leaders today tends to be limited to homophobia or misogyny presumably because they no longer command armies, has transferred to secular leaders. They bomb from drones or practice secret torture in the name of spreading universal freedom. (If you think that's a bit hard on presidents and prime ministers, Gray helpfully reminds us that around a quarter of the world's prisoners are held in America and that the state of Louisiana imprisons more of its population per capita than any other country on the planet.)
And yet, Gray can at times adopt a dogmatic tone himself. One small example that I notice: he regularly misrepresents the figure of Socrates, arguing in this book that the ancient Greek philosopher never doubted that the world was rational. I find this bemusing: Socrates turned reason against itself to expose its stress points and limitations. How else can you explain why so many of Plato's dialogues end inconclusively? His message is not, try harder; but rather, no matter how hard you try, reason will not lead you to the good life. Socrates is, to my mind, a friend of Gray, not an enemy.
Christians otherwise sympathetic to him will also feel that, at times, Gray misunderstands faith. For example, I would argue that the theistic impulse is not for freedom from choice, as he proposes in one passage. Rather, phrases expressing "God's service as perfect freedom" refer to the liberation of choosing to discern God's spirit rather than following one's own. True freedom is a question of attention rather than will.
Similarly, I suspect he is not quite right when he presents mystical traditions as taking freedom to be an inner condition in which normal anxious consciousness has been transcended. Rather, it's a condition in which normal consciousness has become aware of another consciousness that is "closer to me than I am to myself", to paraphrase Saint Augustine. That awareness slowly transforms to the point at which the individual lives out of this other life, known as God. It's the unexpected new life on the other side of dying to oneself that presents itself on Easter Sunday.
But then that is the difference between nihilism and theism. Gray's view is strictly tragic: it's best hope is a negative capability, following Keats, that does not cling to false certainties. Christianity is ultimately a divine comedy, in the ancient sense used of Dante's epic poem: though we must travel through hell, that is the way to heaven. It is often hard to distinguish between that hope and Gray's dark vision.
Thursday, July 30 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, July 30 2015, 13:48 - Podcasts
A couple of recent BBC radio 4 programmes that might be of interest:
What Is Eros? Exploring Freud and Plato on our yearnings.
Start the Week. Talking about ancient philosophy and Alan Watts, with Tim Lott and others.
Sunday, July 19 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, July 19 2015, 08:00 - Journalism
This short essay was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning.
The ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights - figures like Socrates and Plato, Euripides and Sophocles - can be thought of as prophets. Like the Hebrew prophets of the Bible, they were passionate critics of what was going on in their day. So how might they comment upon the European Greek crisis today?
I think with a cry of anger, despair, and lament. Think of Euripides' play, Trojan Women. It portrays the fate of the women of Troy after their terrible defeat in the Trojan war. Euripides has Hecuba cry: "What else but tears is now my hapless lot. What woe must I suppress? I must chant a cheerless dirge of sorrow."
I can imagine a modern day Euripides traveling to the site of Plato's Academy, where I was last month. It's now a suburban park, a half hour bus ride from the main Athenian attractions of the acropolis and agora. I sought it out seeking a moment amongst the stones to connect back. I was feeling idealistic, hopeful, romantic.
I hadn't banked on the park being a makeshift boarding house for the homeless. I found my stones amidst the acanthus plants, but alongside them were human figures curled up in stained sleeping bags. The denser patches of shrubbery had become toilets.
It seemed to me that what Euripides had written of the Trojan women could be said of these modern-day defeated women and men: What woe must they suppress? What tears do they cry? What cheerless dirge expresses their sorrow?
Alongside the ancient playwrights, the ancient philosophers strove to find words of critique and pain too. They were inspired by Socrates, the man whom the rulers of ancient Athens had executed. His questioning and example had proven too much.
Today, Socrates could repeat almost the same set of questions he asked then. What vision of the good life are you politicians really offering? Whom are you serving in your lawmaking? What kind of society are you creating for your citizens?
A key issue the philosophers highlighted was the nature of money and debt. Money is fine, they observed, when it serves people and life. But beware: it has a life of its own. They were as wary of debt as the Hebrew prophets were of usury. Money quickly turns from being a servant to a tyrant; from being of service to demanding it be served. Then, it destroys opportunities, goods, life.
What monster has been created, Socrates might ask now? You talk of justice, Aristotle might add, and fail to see that justice needs friendship to stay human. Without goodwill, it too becomes a tyrant.
The playwrights and philosophers had a tragic view of life. Plato's shade, lurking in the park of his old Academy, would not be surprised by the homeless sleepers. But ancient tragedy also contained hope. Euripides and others wrote about the suffering of their times to remember and honour those who suffer. Their art - their prophecy - gave the suffering dignity and a voice.
Plato offered something else. He knew that whatever happens to the body, the eye of the soul can be kept open and bright. Though terrible things will happen, human beings need never lose sight of what's good, beautiful, and true.
It's a truth central to Christianity too. The tragic figure of the crucified Jesus, the prophet who warned money will become your god, also knew of the light that shines in the vastness of the darkness. It cannot be extinguished. The Greeks have known this truth for millennia. I hope they know it now.
Friday, July 10 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, July 10 2015, 08:44 - Podcasts
We've published the latest discussion between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.
We explore how the ideas and way of life of the Stoics, Platonists and others can help us today bridge supposed divides between science and spirituality. We also look at how Christianity adopted and developed older perceptions of reality and what this means for modern therapies and insights.
Our conversation is prompted by the publication of my new book, The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy.
Sunday, June 28 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, June 28 2015, 17:57 - Events
My new book, published by Idler Books, will be available from July 2015. Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter…
Our story begins a long time ago in a universe that, psychologically speaking, is pretty far away. It is the age of Homer – of warriors and heroes, gods and monsters. Oral means of communication were the norm, not writing: thoughts were written on the heart before they were transferred to the page. An individual in those times – the undifferentiated years of the tenth, ninth, eighth centuries BC – might have looked at the red sky, the black sea or the green land (ancient Greeks had no word for blue) and felt a flood of meaning washing from the hills and waves. The experience was unlike a modern mentality in which we spontaneously turn inside seeking insight in introspection.
There was, as yet, no clear distinction between inside and outside yourself. Human beings were porous, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has put it. Hence, if you read Homer, you find that his heroes have crises but unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they do not stand on an empty stage and reflect via soliloquy. ‘To be or not to be…’ Such deliberation requires a sense of self that is individual, separate, facing its own unique clusters of pain. Rather, in Homer, a miasma rises up, the scene cuts to gods arguing on Olympus, and the characters of Achilles or Hecuba are played like chess pieces in the game called fate. They have what the philologist Owen Barfield called participatory consciousness. We are therefore I am, not I think therefore I am.
Things began to shift in the first stirrings of what we now call philosophy. The presocratic philosophers were those individuals who began to ask the kind of questions that cause a certain distance to open between the individual and the world in which they had felt immersed. They began to create a mentality that feels more familiar to us, one that planted the seeds of the modern. We know one of those queries left by Anaxamines of Miletus, one of the earliest philosophers of the sixth century. He thought to blow on his hand in two ways. First, with his mouth wide open. Then, with his lips pursed. He noticed a difference. Try it.
When blowing with his mouth wide open, the air felt warm. With his lips pursed, it felt cold on his hand. And then he thought to ask why?
That small question represents a massive leap of mind. It wonders if the difference might have a physical reason, a proto-scientific explanation. We now describe the effect as a result of Boyle’s law. The air from pursed lips feels cooler because it undergoes a rapid expansion as it leaves your mouth. That takes energy, so the temperature drops. The air from an open mouth undergoes no change of pressure, and so emerges still warm, at body temperature.
But there is something more subtle going on in Anaxamines’ ‘why’ too. The effect of asking is to distance you from the experience itself. Part of you has the experience of warm and cool air hitting your palm. But now, another part of you takes an inner step back and reflects on the experience. That inner shift is symptomatic of the new way of engaging with life that was emerging at the time of the presocratics. It is that change of consciousness they can be said to have helped crystalize. It is as if alongside life known as a series of fateful events, a deeper truth may be found by turning inwards and reflecting. Introspection had begun.
It carries benefits and costs. One big benefit is that sciences can get going. The presocratics are remembered for coming up with questions we still ask, such as what the world is made of, can I predict whether it will rain tomorrow, do living organisms evolve? Their answers, like ours, also made them more capable of manipulating the world. The change put power in their hands. Another early philosopher, Thales also of Miletus, was such an astute observer of nature that he was able to forecast that next summer would be particularly good for olives. His new science gave him the confidence to buy the rights to license olive presses. Next summer came and he made a killing, because he was correct. Everyone had to pay him a small tax to capitalise on the bumper crop.
But there is a cost of prioritising this more analytical, manipulative form of consciousness over a participatory one, too. It is separation. Hence, Barfield labeled this new phase of life, alienated. I now have the sense that there is a distance between myself and the world, one that feels difficult to bridge because I regard myself as an isolated subject, an ‘I’, in a universe of objects, or things. The shift from an oral to a written culture has a similar effect. Put words on a page, and you cause the illusion that they have an abstract, virtual existence; no longer living in the heart but on the page. What they describe need not be intimately tied to our experience. Hence we know Hamlet as an artifice, a fiction. Homer’s hearers must have felt his heroes existed, in some archetypal way. Similarly, we no longer live with the supposition of oral cultures who see words in the landscape, aboriginal meanings in the stars and clouds. Hereon, philosophy runs the risk of seeming to conquer all mysteries ‘by rule and line’, to recall Keats’ lament for those lost times.
The effects of these changes in the presocratic era have evolved over the centuries, responding to socio-economic as well as ideological developments. For example, whilst Thales thought to capitalise on his new knowledge, it was not until the early modern period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that science and technology became the raison d’être of entire societies, in the industrial revolutions. Alternatively, it was the conditions of the nineteenth century that generated a new kind of human being, the atheist, who concluded there was a fundamental gulf between the worldview known as scientific and that known as religious. An ancient philosopher, upon making a discovery, would have thought it entirely sensible and appropriate to offer a sacrifice in the local temple. ‘Everything is full of gods,’ Thales the meteorologist also delighted in declaring.
None of the ancient philosophers felt it necessary to ask whether there was a meaning to life either. If anything, they struggled because life was too full of meaning. They did not adopt the assumption that disconnected introspection alone must adjudication on purpose and fulfillment. That took the emergence of an ideal of self-sufficient, self-determining, autonomous individuality. Ancient philosophers, like most humans in history, argued that asking where you are is as valuable a question as asking who you are: they followed the injunction to know thyself rather than the more modern need to make something of oneself.
But nonetheless, the assumptions that shape us now find an early reflection in the surviving fragments of works by individuals like Anaxamines and Thales. Unlike Homer, who always comes across as a bit dreamy and mythological, their inquiries feel familiar. Their take on life is striking because, though two and a half thousand years old, it feels related to our own.
Friday, June 19 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, June 19 2015, 16:27 - Journalism
Eleusis is off the beaten track when it comes to following in the footsteps of Paul. This is, in part, good. First, its temples, porticos and ceremonial ways are not filled with other visitors. Second, the silence of the fallen marble still speaks of how it was a thin place, somewhere that countless individuals received insight and consolation in the face of the great issues of life and death. I recommend a visit.
It's the home of the Eleusinian Mysteries and, because of its tremendous influence particularly in Roman times, is really as much a part of Christian history and experience as Paul's teaching on the second coming in Thessalonica or the centrality of love in Corinth.
We speak of baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments and mysteries. We take communion, engage rites of initiation, prepare ourselves to receive God with fasting, sacred meals, festivities, pilgrimages, liturgies. They transform lives and deliver the kind of knowledge that can't be read on a page. Such elements have many sources, but the link to the ancient mysteries is thoroughly in the mix.
It's worth saying a word about the word "mystery" because it can be mystifying. This is a shame as it is a simple idea of which everyone has experience. The word comes from the Greek verb for "to close" (hence, myopic). Recipients of mysteries closed their eyes - that is, they were shown things that eyes alone can't see. To put it another way, a mystery is a direct experience of truth. It's unmediated by words, objects or rites - although words, objects and rites are the vehicles that carry the individual to the moment when the direct experience shows itself.
The journey of Holy Week, particularly through the Triduum or Three Days, is a good example (and is another link with Eleusis, since the ancient mysteries involved a journey of several days to and from Athens). The liturgies on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday carry the congregation to the bleak heart of the emptiness of death, and then, through Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, to an experience of the mystery and joy of resurrection. The Easter Vigil in the early hours of the morning on Easter Sunday offers a direct sense of the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not comprehend.
It seems highly likely that Paul utilizes the language of the mysteries too, not least in his letters to the Corinthians. They lived within easy reach of Eleusis and would have recognised links when he wrote things like, "Listen, I tell you a mystery!" Or, "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies" - because the Eleusinian mysteries were deeply linked to growth and the seasons. Or again when he cited Isaiah, "Death has been swallowed up in victory" - because the mysteries involved a swallowing up in the earth before a release into a new, richer life.
Personally, I think that there may even be a direct link to Paul. One of his named converts in Athens is Dionysius the Areopagite. The name was to have an enormous impact upon subsequent theology when, in the late 5th century AD, a Christian Neoplatonic philosopher adopted it. Under Dionysius's name, he wrote works including Divine Names, Mystical Theology and Celestial Hierarchy, now referred to as authored by Pseudo-Dionysius or Pseudo-Denys. They could claim to be some of the most influential books in Christianity. And perhaps the original Dionysius was an Eleusinian initiate before he was a Christian. Perhaps this is why he was open to Paul's teaching on resurrection when Paul arrived in Athens. And perhaps Dionysius began a school of mysticism within Christianity that came to fruition in the 5th century texts.
The former dean of St Paul's cathedral, William Ralph Inge - Dean Inge, wrote an accessible book on mysticism, Christian Mysticism (it's widely available online). He offers a useful summary of what happened at Eleusis in an appendix, and why it matters to Christians. He concludes: "It is plain that this is one of the cases in which Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission." Personally, I think that this adoption of the practice and theology of the mysteries is crucial to knowing the life in all its fullness that Jesus lived and taught, and Paul so profoundly experienced and knew.
Thursday, June 18 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, June 18 2015, 15:42 - Journalism
What would the Stoics and Epicureans have made of Paul's famous speech on the Areopagus in Athens, the capital city we've now arrived at on the pilgrimage? Let's take the words Luke puts into Paul's mouth in Acts 17 at face value, and consider them point by point. Once more, we see Paul being canny: don't alienate your audience unnecessarily; indeed, reach out to them as far as you can.
I found an altar to an unknown god. (v23)
The altar to the unknown god has not yet been found, in spite of the best efforts of well-funded archeologists. But altars to "unknown gods" are well attested by ancient sources, so Paul has picked an arresting starting point.
Further, the philosophers would broadly have agreed with Paul on the plethora of idols that littered the agora. The Epicureans believed in gods. In fact, some Epicureans thought that Epicurus was a god and remembered him on his birthday. But they were entirely against what they took to be the superstition that characterised much city-state religiosity. Leave the gods alone as they leave us alone, they tended to say.
Stoics were different. They were actively theistic. "We are children of Zeus," Epictetus the Stoic wrote about the same time as Luke. "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within," he continues. The Stoics are with Paul, ready to hear more.
The God who made the world... gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (v24-25)
Now, though, any self-respecting Epicurean would have scoffed. They believed that life is merely the fortunate assembly of atoms. It requires no intervention from outside. There is no god who made the world.
The Stoics, though, would have listened on. God, through the operation of the Logos, generates and sustains all things, they taught. As Seneca, the near contemporary of Paul, explained: "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian."
He allotted the times of their existence... he is not far from each one of us. (v26-27)
This line would have interested the Stoics some more. They were strict determinists. Everything happened according to the divine will and purpose. Plus, they sought to know this will within their lives. Seneca again: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men." In fact, Paul's claim that God is "not far from each one of us" reads like a direct appeal to Stoic ears.
Which would explain why he next quotes two philosophers who were authorities for the Stoics (and not the Epicureans): "In him we live and move and have our being" (Epimenides). "For we too are his offspring" (Aratus). So what will he say next?
Now he commands all people everywhere to repent... v30
Having wooed them Paul, ever the rhetorician, choses this moment to turn up the heat. The themes of repentance and judgment are simply less comfortable personally, though not philosophically. Stoics practiced repentance (the Greek is metanoia - change of heart and mind). Here's Seneca on why it's necessary: "Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat." Repentance can lead the individual back to God.
On the other hand, Stoic adepts, such as might have been in Paul's audience, could well have been affronted by his audacity. OK, Paul comes from Tarsus, no mean Hellenistic city. But Tarsus is no Athens, they might have thought. Repentance for us? What will this man suggest next?
He will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed... v31
Again, judgment per se would have been tolerable to the Stoics. The philosopher Plutarch was writing about the same time as Luke. He's a Platonist, though I think that by the first century AD, Stoicism and Platonism often intermingled. Plutarch writes: "If the soul survives, we must expect that its due in honour and in punishment is awarded after death rather than before." Judgment, therefore, is OK. The tricky element for the Stoics would have been the notion of a man being appointed to judge. This Judge is presumably what they took to be Paul's "foreign deity" (v18).
By raising him from the dead. v31
Now Paul comes to the crux issue: resurrection. For, the Epicureans it was simply impossible. There is no postmortem survival, Epicurus had been explicit.
For the Stoics, resurrection was tricky but... Officially, they believed that when we die the fire of life leaves the body with the last breath. That fire is not lost: it returns to the cosmos from whence it came. Then there are the Platonic additions, and an active contemplation of the immortality of the soul.
Both these visions of postmortem existence are different from personal survival and, even more, from the reconstitution of a body. But, having brought them this far, I think Paul is inviting his Stoic listeners to reconsider and be challenged. After all, it's striking that he preaches the resurrection to the philosophers and not the cross, the thing that elsewhere he remarks is a stumbling block.
And some wanted to hear more of this ingenious man who was clearly passionate, confident and well-educated. We can take it that the Epicureans were the ones who scoffed, and the Stoics were the ones who wanted to hear Paul again (v34). There are also two named converts, Dionysius and Damaris, along with unnamed others. It was a good day for Paul at the Areopagus. He had made his mark in Athens.
Image: Areopagus from the Acropolis, Athens
Tuesday, June 16 2015
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, June 16 2015, 17:25 - Journalism
I'm helping lead a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Paul in Greece. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Today we've been in and around the Metéora monasteries looking at icons...
Plato is not dead, I was once emphatically told. Go into any Greek Orthodox church. Icons are Platonism made manifest!
We've seen many astonishing icons on day five of the pilgrimage, in the thriving Metéora monasteries and their churches. But why are they Platonic and should Christians care?
In his dialogue the Republic, Plato offers a series of analogies and myths that convey four levels at which human beings can perceive, make sense of, and know God and the cosmos. The most famous is the myth of the cave. It begins with the experience of prisoners strapped down at the back of the cave, only they don't realise they are held because it's the only reality they have ever known. They see flickering shadows on the wall in front of them and take them to be real.
It's a metaphor for the first level at which we know things, the empirical level. This is the material level of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling. There's nothing wrong with it. When I took part in the icon retreat at Southwark cathedral last year, one of the loveliest pleasures was handling the egg tempera paints and colours. But if my attempts to write an icon had stopped there, I would have scarcely begun. So too, in general, if we treat the brute stuff of the physical world as the sum total of reality, life won't take us very far.
In truth, no-one stops there. Human beings quite spontaneously interpret and analyse, gather and assess what their senses tell them. I don't just see azure blue outside the window, I see the bright sky. Similarly, with the icon writing. After a day becoming familiar with the paint, we moved onto applying it on a board, and experimented with the imagery produced. When the skilled iconographer sits down to work, the elegant forms of Christ, Mary, angels and saints emerge. The materiality of paint and board are transformed into an object of belief and devotion.
It's Plato's second level of knowledge. In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the moment a few brave prisoners loosen their bonds, peer into the gloom behind them, and see that the flickering shadows they had taken to be reality are the result of puppets dancing in front of a fire. There's more to life than they first assumed. Plato called it the level of belief - living by the convictions we have about things that are fine insofar as they go, only they don't go far enough either.
There is a third level. Think again about the icon. What really matters is not the picture but what the picture conveys. The Greek "eikon" means image or likeness. So it's the tangible manifestation of an intangible reality which the picture transmits or channels. Hence the sense of the numinous or transcendent when one enters an Orthodox church. The sacred space filled with icons becomes a thin place that opens your mind and imagination to a spiritual perception that is actually closer and more immediate than your physicality. The presence enters you like a breath. You step into an awareness of the aliveness of life at the level of soul.
St Paul uses the word "eikon" many times in much the same way, too. Just as we bear an earthy or visible eikon, he tells the Corinthians, so too we bear a heavenly or invisible eikon. In other words, our bodies are not only biological organisms but are breathing mirrors of our ensoulment. It's why our character becomes etched into the lines of our face as we grow old, and why others know who we really are when they see into our eyes.
Plato called this third level, flexible thinking. The seer now is one who is not held back by the literal or concrete but can work with, and live from, the metaphorical and symbolic. It's closer to the truth.
In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the next step that the escaping prisoners take as they realise they are in a cave. They see the mouth of the cave. It emits a uniform, illuminating light. They don't yet see or understand the source of the warm glow, but they certainly now know that shadows and fire don't explain much at all. They stay brave, inch their way towards the opening, and step out. To their astonishment and delight, they see the sun - or at least, they don't see the sun but realise that there is a source of all light that gives life. They can't quite look at the sun. It's blinding.
It's the fourth level of knowledge, the mystical. Plato calls it direct perception or true understanding. It's ineffable, an awareness of reality that is known through and beyond all eikons, perceptions, or words. In the most common Orthodox icon, Christ Pantocrator, this most profound awareness is symbolised by three letters painted into Christ's halo: ο, ω, ν. "ο ων" means "who is". The letters are reminders of the Being of which Christ is the full manifestation; the image of the invisible God. To appreciate the icon at this level is to understand it fully.
It's the goal of the Christian life. Such direct perception is to be united with the Being, with the divine. Union is possible because we can only understand what we can share in, participate with, or are akin to. We understand the material world because we are material as well. Similarly, we understand the immaterial world because we have an immaterial nature too. At the deepest level, the Platonists and indeed Paul risk saying that we can understand and know God insofar as we ourselves manifest the divine, which is to say that we have realised an awareness of the ground of our being and all beings.
It's the mystery of the incarnation, which Plato's fourfold schema unpacks too. First, there is the biological materiality of Jesus the man. Second, there is the historical actuality of his birth and death - the beliefs captured in creeds. Third, there is the theological meaning that is drawn out of these details, from the kenotic emptying Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians, to his notion that we too can become children of God or akin to the divine.
And fourth is the most basic reality of all. The incarnation reveals that in all eternity, the Father "gives birth" to the Son within God, as God. And so also God is born in creation within the human soul, alongside the cosmos as a whole. Hence, Paul writes of creation groaning with birth pangs. It's the fullness of the icon. We see God. We see Christ. We see Jesus. And we see the awesome truth of ourselves.
Image: Christ Pantocrator, the painting in the niche of the wall of the Holy Trinity's monastery, Meteora, Greece
Sunday, June 14 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, June 14 2015, 19:19 - Journalism
I'm helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Today we reached Thessalonica…
Reading between the lines of Paul's letters, so as to catch a glimpse of what gripped the first generation of Christians, is always tricky. Never more so, I feel, than with the letters to the Thessalonians.
Though the first epistle is the earliest Christian text in the Bible, it could be thought of as warm but a bit bland. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their example and welcome (incidentally, in marked contrast to the account of his visit to the city in Acts: Luke tells us that a riot led to Paul making a rapid exit in the middle of the night). In the letter, Paul also appeals to the Thessalonians to remember that he speaks with divine not mortal authority, and to recall that he and his companions "worked night and day so as not to be a burden to you".
The letters become more theologically interesting on one issue, though in relation to a subject that's awkward for Christians living two millennia on. Paul teaches about the parousia or Second Coming. He corrects the Thessalonians for worrying that some of the brethren are dying before Christ has returned. Everyone will share in the resurrection, he writes, and be "caught up in the clouds". Outside of American Rapture circles, does anyone believe that now?
But reading between the lines reveals more and, further, helps us relate to such themes. It helps to see Paul not only as a Jew but as an educated Hellenistic Jew. That can cast a different light on things.
For example, the detail about not being a burden has been interpreted by some scholars as a sign of how Paul was influenced by Stoicism. It seems to be the kind of attitude towards hospitality that a Stoic sage would commend, as opposed to, say, a travelling rabbi.
The Stoic teacher prided himself on living an integrated life. His or her knowledge of cosmic and divine matters did not mean that they didn't care about the humdrum. In fact, they abhorred people who were so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use, because accurate self-perception was the crucial first step on the path to deep wisdom. As Socrates had insisted, Know Thyself! Paul too seems to be saying to the Thessalonians, I manifested such an integrated life, and that's important for my authority.
The pastoral content of the letters develops the issue. Paul's moral instructions about not fornicating, living quietly, and minding your own affairs exemplifies what scholars call paraenesis. It's a type of unshowy morality that emerged from Stoicism, and other Hellenistic philosophy schools, and was regarded as exemplifying the veracity of your beliefs to others. Paul makes this kind of model behaviour his own, and frequently commends it to others.
Why might this be of interest? Well, seeing Paul in this light can help with a common difficulty felt in modern liberal circles: his awkward conservatism. Take a particularly tricky example, the passage in Colossians 3 about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. And now think of it as standard first century exemplary morality. I think that these injunctions would have been taken as self-evident cases of best behaviour at the time. Self-evident cases of best behaviour will inevitably be different now - wives and husbands sharing things, and masters freeing their slaves, say. In other words, such passages shouldn't be read as timeless truths without context, as they are in contemporary debates about "male headship".
Paul's Stoicism can help with understanding his convictions on the Second Coming as well because Stoics too had an eschatology. Many argued that there would be a cosmic conflagration that would bring all things to glorious completion. The good Stoic should wait out the current times, behaving well, and so keep his soul ready for the fiery finale.
This is not at all to say that Paul was a fully signed-up Stoic. His eschatology is distinctive, involving the return of the Lord. But it is to say that such a belief would have resonated with other ideas current at the time, perhaps especially in a Greek city like Thessalonica. As with women obeying their husbands, and slaves their masters, placing Paul in his times - as a pilgrimage can so usefully do - helps us to distinguish the timeless revelation about which he was so passionate from the time-bound assumptions he also made.